Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 1

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

It’s interesting what films get called classics. Nobody talks about “Christmas in Connecticut” very often. It’s certainly not mentioned as often as “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” Turner Classic Movies usually shows it around the holidays but that’s about it as far as TV appearances goes. Yet to a certain portion of the population - classic cinema devotees, Barbara Stanwyck fans – it’s a well regarded seasonal favorite. It’s definitely a title I’ve heard bandied about every once in a while. Well, with the arrival of December, it’s time for me to finally check this one out.

World War II vet Jefferson Jones gets a hero’s welcome, after the boat he’s stationed on gets sunk. While recuperating from war injuries, his nurse reads him articles written by famous food writer, Elizabeth Lane. The nurse writes to Lane’s publisher, who invites Jones to join the writer and her family for Christmas dinner at her scenic farm. There’s only one catch: Lane is a fraud. She doesn’t live on a farm, doesn’t have a husband or baby, and can’t even cook. Her friend John Sloan, who just happens to own a country home in Connecticut, talks her into marrying him. Yet after Jefferson and Elizabeth developing a liking for each other, plans begin to change.

“Christmas in Connecticut” is a screwball romantic comedy, mining laughs out of unlikely romantic entanglements. From the moment Jefferson and Elizabeth first meet, you know they’re going to end up together. The roadblocks the story puts in their way – Sloan’s pushy pursuit of Lane, the totally one-sided affections Jefferson’s nurse feels for him – are obviously going to be discarded by the end. Yet the comedic chemistry between Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan goes a long way. The two have an easy going charm together, Lane clearly being enamored of the guy. Scenes devoted to the two bathing a baby or walking a cow, mundane activities that Elizabeth stumbles through, produces good natured laughs. An especially cute scene has the two embracing after getting buried in a snow fall. The romance comes off as light and amusing.

Elizabeth Lane pretending to be an expert cook and house wife, only to have to fake it when her publisher asks for proof, is definitely convoluted. It does provide a juicy role for Sydney Greenstreet, usually cast as intimidating figures in dramas. Greenstreet is great as the straight man, reacting with a stiff professionalism to the increasingly kooky situation. Through this subplot, “Christmas in Connecticut” even provides some points about the publishing business. Greenstreet is obsessed with keeping his magazine profitable and will even pressure Lane into having another baby to do it. In the end, his need to insure profits lets the heroes have a happy ending.

Greenstreet isn’t the only straight man in the movie. A judge, sent to authenticate Sloan and Lane’s marriage, is constantly dragged around by the comedic antics. He ends up dropped in the snow for his efforts. S. Z. Sakall is very funny as Felix, the five star cook that actually prepares Elizabeth’s recipes. While some of his antics are a little too broad, such as a scene devoted to flipping pancakes, Sakall is hilarious and charming every time he’s on screen. Not all of the film’s slapstick gags are successful, as a late in the film sequence devoted missing babies doesn’t provide very many laughs.

Another reason “Christmas in Connecticut” is worth checking out is for the excellent holiday ambiance. A huge, gorgeous Christmas tree features in one scene. Meanwhile, the majority of the film is blanketed in snow, the kind of fake classic movie snow that feels like December to me. At the same time, it doesn’t push the Christmas-y atmosphere too far, like too many modern flicks tend to. While calling “Christmas in Connecticut” a classic is slightly overstating it, it’s an amicable experience that leaves a smile on your face. It also got a remake in 1993 but that’s for another day... [7/10]

The Simpsons: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

When the first episode of “The Simpsons” aired on December 17, 1989, it’s doubtful anyone involved expected the animated series to become the longest running scripted program in television history. That first episode, it so happens, is also a Christmas special. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” introduces the family in the second half of December. Homer receives the bad news that there will be no Christmas bonus this year. After Marge spends the family’s saving to erase a tattoo Bart got, the family’s patriarch is forced to take a demeaning second job as a mall Santa. This also doesn’t work out too well either.

It’s interesting to go back to the very first episode of “The Simpsons” and see how much the characters have changed over the years. Homer isn’t a complete buffoon yet. Instead, he’s merely pathetic, a man who makes bad decisions but always means well. While Lisa’s brainy side shows in a hilarious moment, where she lectures her aunt on her father, she’s a little more mischievous then she’d become. The fanatical Christianity that would come to define Ned Flanders isn’t established yet. Instead, he’s simply Homer’s foil, somebody who is so perfect where Homer is so flawed. Even Marge is a little more uppity, yelling at her husband, then you’d expect. Mr. Burns only exist as a voice. Only Bart, a little hellion who disrespects but loves his family, and Patti and Selma, who never disguises how much they despise Homer, are totally established from the first episode.

“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is less focused on the belly laughs the later seasons would employ. It’s a little more low key, balancing chuckles with the despairs of real life. Some moments, like the father sadly observing his neighbor’s Christmas decoration, are genuinely sad. Sequences devoted to Homer doing his Christmas shopping in a dollar store or revealing how low his Mall Santa paycheck mines laughter from his pathetic situation. This peaks during the climatic scene, where he bets his money on an obviously lame race dog. Yet there are still traditional laughs in this half hour, like Bart behaving out of line at a Christmas show, Homer grumbling about Christmas lights, and Grandpa’s response to the Happy Elves Christmas special. And Maggie falling down, which is always funny.

The Christmas special displays humble roots for the iconic series. The voices are a little different and the animation is a little sketchier. The show is honestly so low-key that I can’t believe anyone was offended by it, back in 1989. It’s not even the funniest Christmas themed episode, as “Marge Be Not Proud” earns that title. However, it still does a good job of balancing personal pathos with comedy. It also brought Santa’s Little Helper into the fold and, hey, the show wouldn’t be the same without him. [7/10] 

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